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Famous Jameis? You wouldn't know it

Petros Papadakis previews Miami-Florida State.
Petros Papadakis previews Miami-Florida State.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla.

Jameis Winston walked into the room to talk with me for a few minutes and, seeing where we were planning to sit, started moving a mess of chairs around to clear a spot.

That might not sound like a big deal, but just know this: It doesn’t happen with star athletes. Winston is the phenomenon of college football, a redshirt freshman quarterback leading Florida State in a national championship race. The Seminoles will play Miami in a huge game Saturday between undefeated top 10 teams.

Eight weeks ago, no one even knew how to pronounce Winston’s name. It sounds like Jame-iss, but even some of his teammates, maybe jokingly, maybe not, were calling him Jamison. Now, his press conferences are on national TV, and the restaurants around town have “Famous Jameis” on their marquees. Winston is in a thrilling Heisman race with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Yet Winston is still thinking of other people, still doing normal, considerate things even though he’s basically a big kid who just became a national phenomenon.

Did he turn to anyone for advice on how to deal with the attention?

“No, people just talk to me, say, ‘Jameis, keep your head straight,’ ” he said. “I knew I had to keep my head straight.”

That’s the thing about Winston: As the quarterback, he naturally has to be a team leader, even if he is just a freshman. And he’s doing it the only way he can: as a big kid.

How long will he stay that way? I spent a few days with the team this week, and that was the only thought that kept bugging me, that Winston is going to change someday. He says he won’t, but he will.

And we’re going to be the ones who changed him.

“It’s never hard to be yourself,” he said. “I was born myself. I’m not expecting to be nobody else, even on down the road. That’s how I was born and raised.

“People seem to lose track of where they came. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that. I’ve had to grin ever since I was born, so I don’t plan on losing that.”

For now, this moment at Florida State – not only with Winston but also with the team – is magical. It’s fresh and real and special somehow.

In his weekly talk with the media Monday, Coach Jimbo Fisher said it’s about the love the players on the team feel for one another. And then everyone in the room started rolling eyes.

But over the next few days, it was incredible how many players talked said roughly the same thing, using different words, about an unusual closeness and brotherhood on this team. Meanwhile, Winston, kept deferring all credit to his teammates, and at one point felt it necessary to name every offensive lineman.

This sounds fake. And someday, it will be. But this is exactly what this team seems to be built around, this and a talented quarterback and enormous linemen.

If it sounds like a fairy tale, or a cliché of sports that is just something made up, well, I just don’t think it is at Florida State. Not at this point. At the same time, you know nothing stays this pure in sports anymore for long.

So enjoy the moment, hope that it lasts, but accept that it won’t. There is too much attention, too much treating kids like rock stars, for them not to be affected. We need to look at that someday.

If we’re setting Winston up for a fall, then maybe we shouldn’t blame him if it happens.

But this is working at Florida State the only way it can. Winston has the authority to be a leader over seniors because of the way he does it. He says he’ll crack down on players when he has to, but it’s rare that he does.

“I hate pessimistic people,” he told me. “Like, I don’t hate them, but I love being optimistic. I might crack a joke, like `Hey man, you telling me you can’t block that guy?’ ”

It’s amazing what happens when a positive leader sends out positive messages. It turns everyone else. And that’s not even to say that it starts with Winston. It might start with other teammates and filter back to him, bounce off him and spread around to others.

That’s how positivity works.

Before the season, I talked with Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, a senior who chose not to go to the NFL last season while he worked on how to become a better leader. He had gone to a couple of psych professors and asked questions about that skill, watched films of great football leaders, studied leaders of industry and even helped run the team’s offseason workout program.

It was a great plan and so professional and responsible. This isn’t to knock that one bit. But it was just so different from what Winston is doing. In fact, Winston said he believes you can’t learn to be a leader but that leadership is a natural thing, that you have to trust your instincts.

Winston once told reporters – repeating the words in the question he was asked – that “If I get Manziel disease, I want every one of you all to get your mics and start slapping me on the head.’’

He was referring, of course, to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel’s off-field issues, which seem to be based mostly on a sense of entitlement.

Fisher warned Winston at the time not to talk just to be heard. On Monday, Fisher said Winston is handling the spotlight well and that he hasn’t changed as a person. It’s part of what’s helping the team.

For now, Winston’s instincts say to be himself, be considerate of others and keep positive.

Who knows? Crazier things have worked.

Tagged: Florida State, Florida, Texas A&M

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